Living in the Four Corners, it’s easy to take the view for granted — especially the one right above us when the sun sets. But living more than a mile above sea level, in a place where it’s easy to get away from the lights of civilization, makes for great stargazing.
Tory Dawson, though, is well aware of that fact. The Durango-based photographer regularly takes her camera out into the wilderness, aims it at the night sky, and transforms our view of the cosmos into works of art.
Originally from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina — all of 26 feet above sea level — Dawson was amazed at what she could see when she moved to Bailey, Colorado, six years ago, and was living at 9,000 feet.
“I couldn’t get over how bright the stars were,” she said. “It kind of feels like outer space up there.”
So she busted out her old Canon camera, bought a wide-angle lens, and let the shutter go to see what would happen. After six years of constant practice, she said she has “finally kind of got the right angle and exposure and all that jazz.”
Dawson had previous experience with long-exposure photography, mostly shooting fire-spinning friends. But stellar photography presented its own challenges.
When asked how she creates her works, Dawson pointed out that it’s a difficult form of photography to master.
“I’m not trying to be discouraging. It’s just ... for instance, someone will say, ‘How long are you leaving your shutter open?’ And that’s the thing — there’s no set time. You have to follow the moon phases.”
For instance, if it’s a full moon outside, she can’t shoot because the moon takes up too much of the brightness in the sky. Depending on the phase of the moon, Dawson’s shutter can be open anywhere from 45 seconds to 1 minute 20 seconds. She judges the appropriate exposure based on feel.
“My best advice is to get out there and try it. There is no right answer,” she said. “You just have to try it for yourself — and probably have a wide-angle lens.”
The universe occasionally plays along. Dawson was photographing some (properly social-distanced) friends for a Star Wars-themed shoot in late April. In one photo, one of the subjects is using the Force on the other. Meanwhile, in the background, two meteors just happen to be blazing across the sky in the same direction.
She said one of her favorite subjects to shoot is the Milky Way, just because of how gorgeous it is. Dawson deliberately lives out away from town where she can see the clear night sky every night.
“It reminds me of beauty,” she said. “Our everyday problems become so small — isolation can help anyone realize that.”
Photographing the night sky is also a pretty easy activity to get away with while everyone is quarantined.
Turning toward the world beyond earthly concerns and spending so much time staring at the stars also amped up Dawson’s interest in what they might mean, she said.
“I had always been interested in astrology ... but when I started photographing the Milky Way, I went down the astrological rabbit hole of birth charts, moon phases, and retrogrades. It’s safe to say I’m a huge nerd when it comes to astrology and mythology,” she said.
These days, Dawson’s long-exposure photography can be seen on her Facebook (facebook.com/torydawsonphotography) and Instagram (@torydawson) accounts, and visitors to 81301 Coffee almost certainly saw her work on the walls back in January, during the halcyon days when hanging out in coffee shops was still a thing. She also — by day, one might say — does portrait photography.